Today the Church remembers Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated on this day in 1980. He is remembered alongside the many other martyrs of El Salvador who died during the Salvadorian twelve year long Salvadorian Civil War. The politics are complicated as Marxists and Capitalists lined up against one another while liberationists from the Roman Catholic Church rallied against and suffered at the hands of both sides. What matters to us and the reason we remember Archbishop Romero is not his politics but his heart.
For most of his ordained ministry, Romero was considered to be a rather conservative clergyman. But on March 12, 1977 his whole world changed as his close friend Father Rutillio Grande was assassinated for his attempt to create groups for the poor to become self-reliant. "When I looked at Rutillio lying there dead," Romero later said, "I thought, 'If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'"1
From that day on Archbishop Romero began to speak openly against poverty, social injustice, political violence, and torture. His focus, of course, was on the persecution of the Church. On February 2, 1980, Romero spoke at a University in Beligium and denounced what he saw clearly as persecution. "In less than three years [from 1977 to 1980], more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened and slandered. Six of them are martyrs, having been assassinated; various others have been tortured, and others expelled from the country. Religious women have also been the object of persecution. The archdiocesan radio station, Catholic educational institutions and Christian religious institutions have been constantly attacked, menaced, threatened with bombs [, and v]arious parish convents have been sacked."
As power changed hands back and forth, Archbishop Romero did not in dear himself to either side, and on March 24, 1980 as he elevated the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer in a small hospital chapel an assassin with an M-16 assault rifle shot him dead, spilling his blood on the altar. More than two-hundred-fifty-thousand mourners showed up for his funeral mass and army gunmen opened fire from rooftops around the square killing more than 30. Romero was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary of the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador as the gunfire continued.
1980 was only thirty years ago, but for some it is a lifetime. Too long to remember the bloody events in and around Central America. But just this morning, I received an email from the Anglican Communion News Service detailing the attempted assassination of Anglican Bishop of El Salvador, Martin Barahona just last week. It ended with a plea for prayer that "hope of a different El Salvador is not lost and that his event is not a sign of persecution of the church."3
The Second Century Theologian, Tertullian, is credited with coining the phrase, "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church" a phrase that Jesus seems to affirm in our Gospel lesson today. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Obviously most of us will not be called to literally die for our faith as Archbishop Romero and many others have, but each of us has a responsibility to live into our prayer for today and "without fear or favor witness to God's Word who abides, God's Word who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord." We do that by following the example of Romero and the Salvadorian marytrs and giving voice to the voiceless poor, or as the prophet Isiah writes, "Give your food to the hungry and care for the homeless. Then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun."
Even in their darkest hour as gunshot rang out during the funeral of their beloved Archbishop, the Church in El Salvador saw a light shining like the noonday sun. As violence threatens to overtake the Church again, their prayer is for hope; for light in the midst of darkness. May we shine that light by remembering the example of Oscar Romero and by offering help to those in need. Amen.
2- Speech at Lovaine University, Belgium, (Feb. 2, 1980).